Westvleteren, deconstructing the myth

There comes a time when you get your hands on a product that is so well-known, there is nothing left to say about it. The Westvleteren Trappist has been voted ‘best beer in the world’ repeatedly, and the product is a rarity in the world of beers. Everyone has heard about its reputation, but few actually get to taste the beer itself. At The Cocktail Nation, we managed to get our greedy little hands (and lips) on two bottles of Westvleteren, the blonde beer (5,8%) and the Trappist “12” (10,2%). What follows is a report of our tasting session, an abridged history of the brewing of the beer, and a deconstruction of the image surround the brand.

Article by Mickaël Van Nieuwenhove

We opened the bottle of Trappist “12”, and were immediately greeted by a lovely fragrance, reminding us of roasted malt and rock sugar. We tasted a full-bodied beer, grainy in taste, warm on the palate. The aftertaste was not as bitter as we had expected, but instead was rather sweet. The overall aftertaste lingered in the back of our mouths for quite a long time. This beer is certainly enjoyable, but we did not understand ‘what the fuzz was about’. To us, this ‘best beer in the world’ is a very nice beer, but nothing more than that. We couldn’t see ourselves ordering the Westvleteren in the local pub, simply because there are better products, and those products are also available throughout the year (Well, Orval struggles a bit, but still most pubs have one).

Westvleteren 1
The monk’s juice at the abbey brewery

Where does the reputation of being the ‘best beer in the world’ come from, though? For this, we have to take a look at the history of the brewery, which is an interesting one, as it provides a basis for the ‘exclusive and rare’ image that is connected to Westvleteren.

Westvleteren 2
“Ok, five more ‘Hail Marys’ and that’ll do it!”

The Trappist originated from a small brewery connected to the abbey of Saint-Sixtus, which was constructed around 1831. At first, the brewery was used to offer labourers two glasses of beer, as was agreed upon in their contracts. Soon afterwards, however, the monks at the abbey started brewing a stronger beer, the Trappist, as a means to have a steady income. This is the first element that helped create the reputation of “Westvleteren 12”. Up to this day, the beer is brewed in the brewery of the abbey, and is only brewed to make sure the monks can provide for themselves. In other works, the Trappist was never meant to be a commercial product, and it still isn’t. The monks have been brewing the same amount of beer every year since they started in 1837. Next to the “12”, the abbey also brews a blonde beer and the beer known as “Westvleteren 8”.

The second element in the creation of the reputation of Westvleteren lies in the mysterious brewing techniques and ingredients. Or, we should say, the lack of information concerning those. The official website of the abbey only offers a limited amount of information concerning their products, and online sleuths can read that their beers are brewed by using ‘natural ingredients’, that they are unfiltered, unpasteurized, and that extra fermentation happens after the beer has been bottled. Beer historians talk about brewing methods that included carcasses of oxen, cow feet, and even ox blood powder, though these methods are not used anymore, and some are even completely forbidden, and rightly so! Vegans should be able to have Westvleteren beer too!

Thirdly, the Westvleteren beers are brewed by monks, and their abbey and brewery are not accessible to the general public. The beer bottles do not even have labels on them, though all necessary information can be found on the bottle cap. No signs of ingredients or date of bottling though. The bottle itself is as mysterious as the recipe. Because of this, every beer connoisseur recognizes a Westvleteren beer bottle, as it simply reads “Trappist” on the bottle. The lack of information and the easily recognizable bottles both add a mysterious vibe to the reputation of Westvleteren. What is in this beer? The bottle cap simply states “grains”.

Westvleteren 4
“When you drink, you fall asleep. When you sleep, you don’t sin. He who does not sin is saintly, therefore: he who drinks is a saint.”

Lastly, the Westvleteren beer is very exclusive, simply because the production of it does not focus on making this product widely available. The beer is not sold in supermarkets, and if you want to get your hands on a crate, you have to follow this mysterious ritual:

  • Check the official website for availability of the various beers. There are specific periods during the year when you can make a reservation.
  • Call the brewery. Often, you get the distinct tone that the line is already in use, or simply no one picks up the phone. It’s a matter of patience and luck, according to the official website. (you know, like praying)
  • If you manage to talk to a monk, he will tell you on which day and timeslot you can pick up 1 crate of every type of Westvleteren. Yes. One crate. No excuses. You also need to give the license plate of your car so the monks can check who is visiting them. (God and the camera see you)
  • Show up, and pay in cash.

Connected to this are a couple of rules, which turn this beer in a very rare commodity. For starters, you need to wait for 60 days before you can use the same telephone number to call the abbey for your next reservation, and the same goes for your license plate. Driving a friend to the abbey in your own car, is therefore not possible if you have already bought a crate. Additionally, you cannot re-sell your bottles. You are the client, and you are supposed to drink your beer, or share it with a friend. There is a direct provider – consumer relationship, and it is a harsh one! If you get caught, the monks can even ‘talk to you about this’, which probably means either a fine or a permanent ban. (we thought punishment in the abbey dungeons) Is it worth taking the risk?

Westvleteren 5

It is safe to say that the hype concerning Westvleteren was not created by it having earned the title of ‘best beer in the world’, according to Ratebeer.com, though it has certainly helped. The mysterious production process, the lack of a label on the bottle, the rising local and international demand, the small production, and the strict step-by-step ritual to be able to buy a crate all help to create the reputation of Westvleteren, a mysterious and highly sought-after Trappist beer. It is almost a badge of honour, being able to drink the “Westvleteren 12”, because it shows your perseverance and patience, or your connections. It is an enjoyable beer, but there are better products out there. The hype is certainly there, but no one seems to care what the beer actually tastes like, as long as they can get their hands on it.

Cheers & hallelujah!

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